The Evolution of the Superhero Movie

We are currently living in the age of the superhero movie, a financially-friendly genre that is at present flying its way around cinema screens on what is noticeably becoming a regular basis. With the earth-shattering advances in special effects over the past couple of decades, it’s becoming increasingly easy for super-powered vigilantes to make the transition from the pages of a comic book to being projected on the silver screen, which has resulted in a recent explosion of cinematic offerings from the superhero genre. Just this year we’ve already feasted on Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” and last Friday (June 17) we were presented with Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern,” which shall be followed by Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” released July 22 in the US. It seems you can’t look at your local cinema listings without seeing someone in a cape or a mask or with their skin a funny colour (no racism intended). But what is the history of this genre? Where did it all begin? When did it really become popular? And what is with our current fascination with crime-fighters who have awesome, otherworldly powers?

It all started in the 1940s with movie serials, elongated motion pictures shown weekly in movie theatres, split into different chapters that would always end with a cliff-hanger. The first of these to revolve around a super-powered human being was “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” a 1941 serial presented by Republic Pictures that was broken up into twelve chapters, one shown every Saturday. It was based on the titular character from Fawcett Comics and followed Captain Marvel as he attempted to thwart hooded criminal mastermind The Scorpion. It proved very popular amongst both moviegoers and critics, and showed that superheroes can indeed work on the big screen, in turn kick-starting a new genre of cinema. A trailer for the serial can be seen below.

Some other superhero serials followed suit (most notably “Batman” in 1943 and “Superman” in 1948), as well as the 58-minute-long “Superman and the Mole Men” starring George Reeves, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the genre got its first uninterrupted, feature-length big-screen debut. This was Leslie H. Martinson’s “Batman,” a cinematic spin-off of the iconic ’60s TV show of the same name starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Essentially an elongated episode of the kids’ show from which it sprung, the film is famous for its hilariously high camp and tongue-in-cheek tone, practically poking fun at the DC superhero and his sidekick Robin. We watch as the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder go about thwacking and socking the likes of The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin, who are all working together to take down the Dynamic Duo. Both the film and the show have very deservedly developed cult followings over the years, regarded by many to be a guilty pleasure.

"Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb" - Adam West in "Batman"

Twelve years later came the big one, a mega-budget superhero movie based on one of the most iconic heroes of comic book lore. Richard Donner’s “Superman” was released in 1978 and was met with critical acclaim and box office glory. “You’ll believe a man can fly,” gloated the posters, which showed Christopher Reeve gliding through the air in a red cape, blue outfit and with his underwear covering his tights. Telling the origin story of how Superman came to be and how he first battled with the villainous Lex Luthor, “Superman” has become a staple of cinema history and defined the career of the late Mr. Reeve. Three sequels followed (“Superman II” in 1980, “Superman III” in 1983, and “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” in 1987), as well as the very lame loose spin-off “Supergirl” in 1984, though none managed to top the success of the ground-breaking original.

Christopher Reeve presumably about to save Metropolis in "Superman"

In 1989 came two notably adult superhero flicks, certainly much more for grown-ups’ eyes than the “Superman” franchise. The first was Mark Goldblatt’s critically panned “The Punisher,” based on the Marvel comic character, a deadly and feared vigilante who wreaks bloody havoc against organised crime with an assortment of body-obliterating weaponry; we’re not talking about slingshots here. The second was Tim Burton’s “Batman,” a gothic adaptation of the DC comic, with Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson as the big bat’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. While it has been criticised for being too dark (Burton is not known for his lighthearted silliness), “Batman” has been long regarded as a high of the genre, and is nothing if it’s not entertaining. And who could forget Danny Elfman’s marvellous score? Go on, hum it.

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson talk bat-to-clown in "Batman"

The following year came an original superhero picture from the mind of Sam Raimi, the man behind the wickedly gruesome “Evil Dead” trilogy. “Darkman” starred Liam Neeson as a scientist who is developing a type of synthetic skin, with which he intends to help burn victims. He ends up in a lab explosion deliberately sparked by a bunch of mobsters, but survives the incident and vows revenge on the crooks who wronged him, using his synthetic skin for various disguises. While it’s far-fetched and often quite silly (a scene at a carnival in which Neeson demands to be given a toy elephant is unintentionally hilarious), “Darkman” is nonetheless a fun ride and has quite an imagination. Two sequels followed (“Darkman II: The Return of Durant” in 1995 and “Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die” in 1996), both straight-to-video and both said to be terrible (I’ve never ventured anywhere near them).

Liam Neeson (or The Elephant Man) in "Darkman"

And then the “Batman” sequels piled up, starting with the wonderful “Batman Returns” in 1992, directed again by Burton, with Danny DeVito playing the evil Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the rather attractive Catwoman. Joel Schumacher (who had previously directed vampire flick “The Lost Boys”) then sat down in the director’s chair, jamming down our throats “Batman Forever” in 1995 and “Batman & Robin” in 1997. Both films are looked back on in shame by moviegoers everywhere, specifically the latter due to its overwhelming camp and general aura of idiocy (the Batsuit had nipples, for crying out loud), as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cringe-worthy turn as the pun-tastic Mr. Freeze. It seems Schumacher tried to take the franchise back to the ’60s TV show and as a result irritated film lovers the world over. Here is the man himself apologising for this unholy mess he brought forth upon us:

1990 brought us Albert Pyun’s cheese-tastic “Captain America,” with Matt Salinger as the patriotic Marvel hero, the film not even managing to (dis)grace cinema screens, instead released only on video. “The Terminator” director James Cameron gained the rights to the Spider-Man comics and wrote a widely admired script treatment for a movie adaptation, though the project never left the page (legal battles can be blamed for this). Joe Johnston’s period adventure “The Rocketeer” was released in 1991 and, despite the praise it deservedly received from most critics, sadly flopped at the box office. Alec Baldwin took on the titular hero of “The Shadow” in 1994, the film based on the psychic crime-fighter from ’30s pulp magazines, comic books and radio shows, the film overall just a bit too corny for its own good. And an unreleased 90-minute Roger Corman-produced film adaptation of Marvel’s “The Fantastic Four” was filmed just to maintain the license to the comic (a fact unbeknownst to the poor actors), the film never intended to see the light of day, though the vomit-inducing trailer for it can be seen below. I should warn you, you’ll need a sick bag.

Superhero films then took a turn for African-American leads, with Michael Jai White in the practically unwatchable “Spawn” and Shaquille O’Neal in the beyond lame “Steel,” both films from 1997. But it wasn’t until the following year that audiences got an African-American leading man they really took a shine to. “Blade” starred Wesley Snipes as the eponymous half-human half-vampire, who is dedicated to hunting down and slaughtering every bloodsucker on planet Earth while wearing shades and a black leather jacket (he must get very hot running about in that thing). While reviews from critics were rather mixed, “Blade” was quite the box office hit for Marvel Studios, and went on to spawn two sequels: the superior “Blade II” (2002) and the obnoxiously mediocre “Blade: Trinity” (2004).

Wesley Snipes is a good bit cooler than you in "Blade"

It was the success of “Blade” that encouraged Marvel Studios to go ahead with a more ambitious project, to adapt one of their most well-known comic series for the big screen, resulting in both the birth of a gigantic film franchise and the dawn of a new age for the cinematic superhero genre. Set in a world in which mutants with superpowers are feared by the public and government, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” was released in 2000, and was met with box office glory and critical acclaim. Its 2003 sequel was bigger and better, faster and fresher, regarded by many today to be one of the best superhero flicks out there. And while the last two instalments, “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009), were disappointments to fans, this year’s “X-Men: First Class” has done nothing if not resparked our faith in the franchise. Also released in 2000 was M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable,” starring Bruce Willis as an everyday man who is informed by a comic book obsessor that he has superpowers. It was an original work, taking the superhero genre into more realistic and dramatic territory, and was a critical and financial hit, receiving $248 million worldwide.

Hugh Jackman clawing ass in "X-Men 2"

Another by-product of the profit “Blade” raked in was the long-anticipated big-screen introduction of one of the most beloved characters in comic book history. What was his name again? Oh yeah, that’s right. “Spider-Man” was gigantic. Directed by Sam Raimi, the wall-crawler’s debut movie opened in 2002 and broke box office records, receiving $114 million on its opening weekend, as well as garnering mass critical acclaim. Its two sequels (“Spider-Man 2” in 2004 and “Spider-Man 3” in 2007) were both also monumental cash-guzzlers, the former very deservedly and the latter, well, maybe no deservedly. While the third is generally regarded as lacklustre, parts one and two are heralded as incredibly entertaining slices of popcorn movie-making, with the special effects magnificent, the action fast and fun, leaving audiences everywhere dizzy, dazzled and rather delighted.

Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man

And the superhero movies just kept on coming, all showing off the new advances in the SFX department. We got Mark Steven Johnson’s “Daredevil” and Ang Lee’s “Hulk” in 2003; Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy,” Jonathan Hensleigh’s “The Punisher,” Pitof’s “Catwoman” and Brad Bird’s animated “The Incredibles” in 2004; Rob Bowman’s “Daredevil” spin-off “Elektra,” Tim Story’s “Fantastic Four” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” in 2005; Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” and Ivan Reitman’s rom-com “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” in 2006; Mark Steven Johnson’s “Ghost Rider” and Tim Story’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” in 2007; but it was 2008 that proved to be the biggest year for the genre.

Chris Evans on fire in "Fantastic Four"

2008 gave cinema the beginning of a series of interconnected comic book pictures, starting with “Iron Man,” the first film independently developed by Marvel Studios. Based on the somewhat lesser-known titular character, Jon Favreau’s energetic actioner starred Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, the billionaire head of a weapons company who, after being captured by terrorists, builds a weaponised suit that can fly, shoot and cause quite a lot of damage to public property. One month later, Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk” was released, a reboot of Ang Lee’s dire 2003 stab at the Marvel character. It starred Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, a scientist who is the victim of a science experiment gone wrong, resulting in him turning into a big green meanie whenever he loses his temper. In the end scene of “The Incredible Hulk,” Tony Stark from “Iron Man” makes an unexpected appearance and announces that he is assembling a team together. This was the beginning of “The Avengers,” a team-up of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor, set for release on May 4, 2012 under the direction of Joss Whedon. Sounds exciting, yes? You bet your ass it does.

"Hulk smash!" - The big green meanie in "The Incredible Hulk"

But what also made 2008 such a big year for the genre was the release of the highly anticipated follow-up to 2005’s widely acclaimed “Batman Begins.” Yes, I’m talking about Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the biggest film of ’08 and also one of the year’s most critically cherished motion pictures. Christian Bale returned as the Caped Crusader, this time battling The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger), a madman causing chaos throughout Gotham City while wearing clown make-up and sporting a nasty Glasgow smile. Ledger sadly died before the movie’s release date, but his jaw-dropping performance landed him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the annual Oscar ceremony in 2009. Now regarded as a behemoth of the superhero genre, “The Dark Knight” is said by many to be the very best the genre has offered so far, it showing how powerful a film about a man in tights and a mask really can be. It seems every comic book movie released since “The Dark Knight” has been compared to it, mostly unfavourably.

"Why so serious?" - Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight"

Also from 2008 was Peter Berg’s “Hancock,” which offered a different take on the regular superhero character, with Will Smith playing a drunken loser with the strength of a hundred men and the ability to fly; sadly, the film descended into uninspired mode when it hit the halfway mark. The sequel to “Hellboy” was also released, again directed by Guillermo del Toro, “The Golden Army” widely considered to be even better than its fantasy predecessor. The “Punisher” franchise was rebooted yet again in 2008 with “Punisher: War Zone,” starring Ray Stevenson as vigilante Frank Castle, the film flopping horribly in spite of it actually being quite fun. Zack Snyder decided to film the so-called “unfilmable” graphic novel with “Watchmen” in 2009, a grown-ups-only superhero flick based on Alan Moore’s awe-inspiring 1986/1987 book of the same name. In 2010, Matthew Vaughn took on a film adaptation of Mark Millar’s very vulgar DIY-superhero comic book “Kick-Ass,” resulting in a ridiculously entertaining slice of bloody violence, awesome profanity and adult humour. The sequel to “Iron Man” came next, and, while it made plenty of dough at the box office, was said to be a misguided mess of a film that felt too much like one big overblown advertisement for “The Avengers.” And two animated features in 2010 offered the opposite of a superhero film, with “Megamind” and “Despicable Me” telling the story from the perspective of the villain.

The bulb-skulled blue alien from "Megamind"

Earlier this year, Michel Gondry gave us “The Green Hornet,” a comedic take on the previously serious character from the radio show, TV show, comic books and movie serials. It was a financial success, though opinions on the film were mixed at best. “Thor” thundered into cinema screens in early May, based on the Norse god from the Marvel line of comics, and was both a critical and box office champion, winning over quite a plethora of snooty naysayers. And then at the beginning of this month came “X-Men: First Class,” the Matthew Vaughn-directed prequel to the “X-Men” franchise. It was met immediately with near-universal praise from critics and moviegoers, many calling it the best in the series so far (I must say that I agree).

A very wet Chris Hemsworth gripping his massive tool in "Thor"

And that brings us to today, with the sadly mediocre “Green Lantern” having just been released on Friday, and “Captain America: The First Avenger” out at the end of July. But what of the future of the genre? It’s come so far and seems to be at its peak right now, but will this last for much longer? Will we run out of characters to adapt, characters to create, or places to take this aspect of filmdom? Will it live on for years to come, or is this just a fad that will quickly burn out once it has run its course? It’s hard to tell, but considering we’ve got “The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and “Man of Steel” lined up for release next year, as well as talk of a “Justice League” movie being in the works, I think the superhero genre is safe for now from being dumped in a cardboard box and left to collect dust in the darkness of the attic.

By Stephen Watson


  1. I still don’t understand what was so bad about Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) – you call it “dire”, while I thought it was stylistically interesting, thematically deeper than most of these films, while still offering us plenty of “HULK SMASH!” moments. A bit slow, perhaps, but I can handle slow – I have an attention span.

  2. @brian t, I admire the film’s ambitions, it tried to be a little “arthouse” compared to other blockbusters, I guess, but I honestly don’t find it particularly engaging and just a bit dull. Some very nice moments, but it overall doesn’t work. And the editing…. my god, the editing… And yes, I have an attention span.

  3. I didn’t see 1991’s The Guyver on there. Too obsure perhaps? Uber cheesy, as if the Power Rangers wanted to be taken seriously, but I think it has cult status and I found it entertaining.

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